Iwas sixteen, two years too young to be fighting my way through the tan gled and sweaty mass of bodies that – filled the club, but I was there nonetheless. When I finally managed to stumble to the bar, I croaked out an order for a large glass of cold water before collapsing on the countertop. My limbs were dead and aching, my throat was like sandpaper, and my head felt light and fragile after hours of non-stop dancing. Through the stabs of pain I heard the DJ switch tracks and I recognised the song immediately. Before the bassline had a chance to drop, I had bulldozed my way back to the dancefloor. All physical discomfort and functional needs were forgotten, my glass of cold water was left untouched on the bar where my head had lain. That’s what Grime did to me then, and to be honest it still has that effect now.
In fact, play ‘Oi!’ by More Fire Crew at the wedding reception of the average twenty-something Black British couple and witness another level of “turn up”. The infectious energy, trance-inducing basslines, and gritty subject matter is often seen as intimidating to more – ahem – mainstream audiences, and some club owners have even banned Grime from their establishments, but then what else is new? Grime was made in the margins for the marginalised. Grime is us. The genre came from east London, economically one of the poorest areas of the UK. It was birthed around the time when the British tabloids were in full panic mode about gangs of black boys running the streets of Britain killing each other.
The Operation Trident initiative, launched by London’s Metropolitan Police to tackle gun crime and homicide in the black community, was introducing a new level of harassment and surveillance to the lives of young black men everywhere. My hometown of Birmingham was experiencing its own moral panic, after a drive by shooting resulted in the deaths of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare, and brought the city’s gang rivalries to the forefront. The crucible of systematic disenfranchisement and haphazard violence of urban Britain was the backdrop for Grime’s origin story. It began with Wiley, a member of UK garage crew Pay As U Go, who began producing a different kind of music that he dubbed “eskibeat”. If the good vibes of garage felt like an endless summer, Wiley was ushering in winter. The sound was starker and colder, which lead to him christening his new tracks with names like ‘Eskimo’, ‘Ice Rink’, and ‘Igloo’. This new direction kept the frantic tempo of garage’s 140 beats per minute, but was sonically more sparse and urgent.
The production was decidedly electronic, with clicks, bangs and crashes that didn’t even pretend to sound like any musical instrument you had ever heard before. As more producers followed after Wiley, Grime began to take shape. It was dark, industrial, and for the uninitiated, it was thoroughly perplexing. This truly new genre of music felt like punk rock for the tower blocks – the large concrete housing estates and towering rectangles of low income apartments that had been thrown together after Britain, the East End in particular, was ravaged in the Second World War. In this melting pot of cultures, Grime’s slang drew from Jamaican Patois and dancehall music, while its energy and MC-driven nature came from jungle and drum-and-bass. Though closely related to the party-friendly garage that bubbled away in British clubs in the late nineties and early noughties, the tone of Grime was far-removed from the silky vocals about fine liquor and even finer women. Grime’s aesthetic was black tracksuits and low hats in place of the flashy Moschino that its older brother wore.
Garage’s Gucci loafers were replaced with Nike Air Max, and thick gold chains were now tucked into hoods instead of on brazen display. From its nexus of Bow, east London, Grime spread via pirate radio stations, vinyl, homemade music videos and independently produced media such as Lord of the Mics and Risky Roadz. I kissed my first boyfriend to the soundtrack of Grime MCs battling back-to-back on sets – Grime’s equivalent of a rap cypher – recorded live off of illicit radio broadcasts onto cassette tapes. As time went on, we even got our own music channel. If you were lucky enough to have a Sky TV subscription, you could tune into Channel U and see kids who looked and sounded just like you strutting in front of cameras loaned from local college media departments for music videos that would also double up as coursework for someone’s Media Studies qualification. This industrious spirit created a soundtrack to our lives that actually sounded like us, instead of the American exports that were the only permutation of blackness allowed visibility in the mainstream media.
East Londoner and former Wiley protegee Dizzee Rascal became Grime’s first breakout star, signing to an actual record label and beating Coldplay to win the Mercury Prize for Best Album. Dizzee’s album ‘Boy in da Corner’ still stands today as one of the epitomes of the genre and in many ways ‘Boy in da Corner’ is Grime’s ‘Illmatic’. To bemused middle-class music journalists Dizzee was like an oracle, immortalising the lives and mindset of a Britain that for the most part was swept aside and overlooked. “Don’t talk to me ‘bout royalty ‘cause/Queen Elizabeth don’t know me, so/how can she control me, when/I live street and she lives neat,” he spat forcefully on ‘2 Far’, while on ‘Hold Ya Mouf’ he directly addressed our prime minister when he declared “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair.” Of course such a virulent strain of rebellion was never going to go unchecked, and as Grime rose in prominence, the police got involved, leaning on club owners to stop giving Grime artists a stage. Record labels could not contain their interest, but were still weary, not quite sure what to do sitting across the table from the kind of young men that they would usually cross the road to avoid.
In reaction to this, the enterprising nature that enabled our scene to thrive kicked into action once again. MCs began to switch up the lyrical content, the production softened away from the industrial sounds of sirens and grating basslines, and transformed into a style of EDM that would open doors and pad out bank accounts. Grime had evolved, and some began publicly declaring that it was dead. But can a genre so potent ever truly die? On the underground Grime was spreading, like all contagions, further and further afield. MCs were getting bookings outside of the multicultural havens of the bigger British cities, and we were in awe as we watched footage of mostly white crowds losing their minds to Grime crews like Boy Better Know in far flung European cities. Even America began taking note. By now Dizzee had already collaborated with UGK, and JayZ and Memphis Bleek had even rapped doubletime over Lethal Bizzle’s Forward Riddim at the Royal Albert Hall with an actual live orchestra mimicking the imitation string sounds from the original track.
Skepta assumed the role of Grime’s ambassador when he vocalled a Grime remix to Diddy Dirty Money’s ‘Hello Good Morning’, and since then has schooled Drake on Grime history and brought through the “mandem” in all black with flamethrowers for the historic Kanye West Brits performance that horrified white audiences everywhere. Grime’s influence continues to grow, and the Grime kid generation who menaced public transport with their impromptu sets and tiny speakers have taken the mantle from the pioneers, flying the flag for the United Kingdom of Grime near and far. Chip continues to tour previously uncharted corners of the UK and Stormzy was just one of Grime’s stars to bless the stage at SXSW this year.
The power of the internet has also spread Grime as far afield as Australia and Japan. As something that feels so iconoclastically British, seeing Australian and Japanese MCs adopt our culture right down the dancehall-influenced slang, and iconic “oneline-flow” is strangely both satisfying and disorientating. While I’m not as involved in the scene as I once was, the success of Grime still feels very personal. Grime grew and matured as we did – or is it more accurate to say that we grew and matured as Grime did? Grime’s triumph over the odds of disenfranchisement, opposition, commercialisation, and blacklisting feels like a parable for the lives of a generation that was born into one recession and came of age in another. Grime has endured longer than they thought it would, reached heights they said it never could, and it’s a homegrown reminder that so can we.
Jendella Benson is a photographer, filmmaker and writer with experience in creative and brand direction. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Metro, The Voice Newspaper, and also screened on London Live and OH TV. Alongside exhibiting both in the UK and Canada, she’e done public speaking appearabces at conferences, university debates and also on TV.